Oct 20, 2022
Dominic Barton on Canada-China relations, future at Rio Tinto
Can't forget that we're a 'resource superpower': Rio Tinto chairman
Former Canadian ambassador to China Dominic Barton is most well-known among households for helping with the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
The detention of the Canadians for almost three years was largely seen as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd.’s Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on Dec. 1, 2018.
Kovrig and Spavor were released just hours after the case against Wanzhou was dropped on Sept. 24, 2021.
In an exclusive interview on Thursday, Barton said he hasn’t felt comfortable speaking about the experience as he thought he would “start crying” and that the whole event was “too emotional,” until now.
“It was a lot of work, trying to figure out how to work with basically four different parties,” Barton said.
“You know we had Canada, China, the United States and Huawei and all (parties) had red lines. We had very strong red lines but others did too, and then sort of try to find that area of common ground, which was very narrow, and then figure out a solution.”
Since then, Barton said communication channels between the two countries have improved, and that the new Canadian Ambassador to China Jennifer May is working hard to build upon them.
But, he added that it is hard to “unsee what happened” with Kovrig and Spavor.
“We can't unsee what happened to our people and from the Chinese side of things, they feel they can't unsee what they think we did,” Barton said.
“So you know, I think we're in a different place, but maybe a more mature place in terms of looking at where everyone is and what we do.”
In December 2021, Barton announced he would be stepping down from the role as Canadian ambassador to China.
“I've sort of been consolidating, trying to figure out what I'm going to be doing, moving to a new place and so forth. So it's now I'm just coming back.”
FUTURE WITH RIO TINTO
Since leaving the world of politics, Barton has taken on a role with one of the world’s largest mining companies.
On April 4, 2022, Barton joined Rio Tinto Group’s board of directors and assumed the position of company chairman shortly after on May 5.
Barton said that he was attracted to the company for its mission and focus on the energy transition.
“I’m known as a business leader, probably more than a diplomat, so I think again there’s a lot of stories about what motivates people to do things and what they're doing afterwards,” Barton said.
“My view is I was asked to help in a pretty tough situation (negotiation of Kovrig and Spavor). There was a mission to be done, when the mission’s done, I wanted to get back to the private sector.”
FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PARTNERSHIP
Last week, Rio Tinto announced it partnered with the Canadian government to decarbonize its Rio Tinto Fer et Titane (RTFT) operations in Sorel-Tracy, Que.
The release said the federal government will invest up to $737 million over the next eight years to reduce “greenhouse gas emissions from RTFT’s titanium dioxide, steel and metal powders business by up to 70 per cent.”
Barton said he thinks that the “government is following a sort of an industrial strategy” with its recent investments in Rio Tinto’s processing of critical minerals and Nokia Corp.’s wireless technology research and development.
He added that the energy transition is a huge opportunity for Canada and the federal government is looking to collaborate “with the private sector to be able to get that to work.”
“I think my personal view is you (the government) look for the organizations that can actually help you get what you need to have done,” Barton said.
RIO TINTO EYES TURQUOISE HILL
But the federal government isn’t the only deal on Rio Tinto’s radar.
In September, the mining organization announced it entered a definitive agreement to acquire full ownership of Turquoise Hill Resources Ltd.
In a press release, the company said it expects the transaction to be approved “as early as possible in the fourth quarter of 2022” at a Turquoise Hill shareholder meeting.
The deal would give Rio Tinto control over one of the world’s largest copper mines.
The Oyu Tolgoi mine is a joint venture between Turquoise Hill and the government of Mongolia, and it’s expected to become the fourth-largest copper mine globally.
Barton said the mine in Mongolia is an amazing business and these partnerships between governments and businesses “have never been more important because of this view of industrial policy.”
“I think there's an added impetus now which is that these minerals are critical for the (energy) transition that we're going to have to make. If we don't get these minerals, we're just not going to be able to do it,” Barton said.
“These minerals are scarce and they're not in the most convenient places, so that's why I think we're seeing more of this cooperation, and viewed as sort of how can people work together, but also companies working together to be able to get this done.”
CANADIAN RELATIONSHIPS IN THE LONG-TERM
Looking to the future, Barton thinks it’s important that Canada expands its relationships with growing regions in the world, specifically Asia.
“Canada, for our prosperity, needs to be linked to it (Asia). We're a small trading nation, we have to trade, so I'm excited by any trade push, particularly though, in those regions,” Barton said.
While he thinks Canadian officials should never underestimate the importance of our relationship with the United States, he said it’s important to strengthen global ties.
“I think we also just can't forget that we're a resource superpower and there's a lot that we could be doing, I think more in the world on that front, you know in Europe, in Asia and in the U.S,” Barton said.
“I hope we’ll step up and do it.”
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